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Vaccine algorithm can't solve capitalist inequality
Josh Asker, Socialist Party national committee
Eleven months after coronavirus restrictions came into force in England, another 800,000 people are being informed by the government that they need to 'shield' as they are at an increased risk of dying from the effects of the virus. This is as part of a government recalculation to decide priority groups to receive the vaccine, aimed at including a greater number of risk factors beyond just age.
Many of these people will have been forced into unsafe workplaces over the course of the last year, not having been given the instruction previously. We will not know how many people have died as a consequence of not being previously considered at risk.
But even for those who have been told to shield since May 2020, it doesn't necessarily mean they have been able to do so. Many have been forced into workplaces, unable to afford to do otherwise.
Measly sick pay
If you are instructed to shield and unable to work from home, this can be used as a means of getting statutory sick pay. At £95.85 a week however, this is nowhere near enough to survive on. And if you are self-employed, have an insecure contract, or earn less than £120 a week, you are not even eligible for that paltry sum.
Francis O'Grady, leader of the Trades Union Congress (TUC), has argued that workers asked to shield should be put onto furlough. But this means a 20% pay cut. What is also lacking is any strategy for how this can be fought for. The Socialist Party demands that all workers unable to attend work as a result of the pandemic should receive 100% pay. This is the way to ensure people can afford to shield or isolate, and to restrict the spread of the virus.
Action taken by members of the National Education Union in January to stop the full, unsafe opening of schools shows that, if mobilised, the trade union movement can force the government to change course in its response to the pandemic. The TUC should bring together workers in all industries, and prepare for coordinated action to defend workers' lives and livelihoods during and after the pandemic.
The government's decision to include greater numbers in the shielding category was made using an algorithm developed by scientists at Oxford University. It seeks to account for additional risk factors, based on modelling of data from the first wave, including ethnicity and deprivation.
This is a welcome acknowledgement that the poverty and discrimination of capitalism are lethal. But inequality is a fundamental feature of a system where a few get rich at the expense of the vast majority - no algorithm can change that fact.
The inclusion of ethnicity as a factor in determining who gets access to the vaccine first could be potentially divisive. The government's own 'Race Disparity Unit' found in October last year that the increased number of deaths of people from black and minority ethnic (BAME) backgrounds was driven mainly by social and economic factors, as the Socialist Party had argued, not genetic difference (See 'BAME Covid deaths due to capitalist inequality' at socialistparty.org.uk).
Racism and inequality, ingrained in capitalism, means that people from BAME backgrounds are more likely to work in lower-paid occupations at greater risk of Covid-19 infection, such as in social care or public transport. In workplaces such as in the health service, BAME people are more likely to work in the lower grades and on the front line.
But the government refuses to make decisions based on people's occupation as a risk factor, arguing that it doesn't have the data. One government source said: "If you start going down the route of prioritising one profession over another, where does it stop?"
The answer is, as the Socialist Party has argued, working-class control of the pandemic response. Bodies of democratically elected trade unionists can compile reports of those at greatest risk of exposure to the virus, based on their role in the workplace. Coordinating across industries, workers' own expertise can and should democratically determine what parts of industry, and what specific tasks are essential.
The use of algorithms to try to mitigate the inequality of capitalism will not work. Nothing short of taking the vast wealth of society into public ownership by nationalising the banks and big companies can address this problem.
Decisions about how to allocate resources and how to distribute the vaccine, should be informed by data, but must ultimately be made democratically by the working class.
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